For many people at this time of year, all of the seasonal cheer and de rigueur bonhomie can get downright depressing. If you're among this not-so-select group, GableStage may have a holiday show for you: James Joyce's "The Dead," a New Musical Play, which is based on the celebrated short story. The title might suggest some kind of horror or supernatural tale, but actually it's a gentle story that starts with music and laughter and ends in longing and loss. These latter themes could also be applied to the production: While there is much to commend it, the sum of its parts adds up to less than director Joseph Adler's usual superior standard. This "Dead," like this season, may leave you feeling a little blue.
The final story in Joyce's collection Dubliners, "The Dead" is a lyrical, poignant tale, considered by many to be among the finest short stories ever written. So it is not surprising that playwright Richard Nelson and composer Shaun Davey would be keen to have a go at a stage adaptation, which came to life some years back at Playwrights Horizons in New York and then moved to Broadway starring Christopher Walken and Blair Brown. The play is set in Dublin at Christmastime in 1904, as writer/critic Gabriel Conroy and his wife, Gretta, arrive at an annual dinner held by his elderly aunts, Julia and Kate Morkan. The party is attended by an array of good-natured Irish bourgeoisie, who engage in conversation and sing songs.
Gabriel, troubled by his lack of engagement in his own life, notices that Gretta seems distracted, apparently by a young singer, Michael. He's plagued by Molly Ivors, an Irish nationalist who accuses Gabriel of being pro-British. An amiable sot, Freddie Malins, arrives with a snootful, to the dismay of his disapproving mother. All the while, Julia seems to be in a weakened state but tries to brave up to her hostess tasks. After the singing and the feasting, Julia takes to her bed and fades quickly. Then the Conroys take to theirs, where Gabriel, jealous and suspicious, learns the secret of his wife's distraction. Singer Michael and his songs remind her of her long-ago youthful swain, Michael Furey, who died after standing below her window in the rain. As snow falls outside, Gabriel reflects on its evenhandedness, falling as it does on the living and the dead.
This tale, as Joyce tells it, is far richer than it may appear here. Joyce's lifework was to find a way to capture the essence of the human experience -- all the raging emotions, fears, and poetry beneath the surface of everyday life. Here he conjures an amazingly tactile vibrancy from an ordinary holiday celebration and brings forth a bittersweet awareness of the fragility of experience. Joyce's sensibilities seem entirely appropriate to this season, when darkness has its hold on the world and the flickering, fleeting nature of life is all the more apparent amid the customary rituals, which remain constant, even if we don't.
Like all of Joyce's work, "The Dead" is drawn from autobiographical sources. Like Gabriel, Joyce put in a couple of years as a literary critic and was less than enthusiastic for Irish nationalism. Joyce's common-law wife, Nora, really did know a young Michael who loved and died exactly as in the story. In fact, virtually all of the characters and topical references in the story are drawn from Joyce's life and acquaintances. Joyce combines these elements with dense, carefully constructed classical and literary allusions. The name Gabriel Conroy appears to come from a novel by Bret Harte that begins with an extended description of snow falling. Christian allusions, especially those Catholic, abound. The last phrase of Joyce's final paragraph (which is the text of the play's final song), "the living and the dead," echoes the Apostolic Creed. The names Gabriel and Michael are those of the archangels; the symbol of the angel Gabriel is the lily, which is the name of the maid in the story. The surname of the elderly sisters, Morkan, appears to be a play on morke, the word for darkness in Danish, which Joyce studied (he was proficient enough to write a letter to Ibsen in Dano-Norwegian). References to Romeo and Juliet -- notably the balcony scene and their sad deaths -- are echoed in Gretta's relationship with her young Michael Furey. There are so many allusions and hidden meanings in Joyce that an entire academic industry has sprung up to elucidate them.
GableStage certainly has taken a big chance in producing "The Dead" in its Florida premiere. This is refined, literary material to begin with, hampered by its famous but nevertheless off-putting title. It is the company's first musical, its first "holiday" show, and one that's decidedly counterprogramming to the treacly fare we usually see at this time of year. It is also an expensive, rambling show with a cast of sixteen, including four onstage musicians. Nelson and Davey have plucked much of the story line and the dialogue from the story, adding to it sixteen traditional songs (using some of Joyce's text as lyrics), as well as incidental music.
In the main, director Adler and his accomplished ensemble fare well. The large cast, anchored by ever-reliable Stephen G. Anthony as the uneasy Gabriel, is very strong. Sandra Ives gives a multidimensional portrait of Gabriel's troubled wife, Gretta. Kay Brady and Kimberly Daniel are poignant as the ailing, tentative Julia Morkan and her anguished sister Kate. Heath Kelts is a fine Freddie; Sheila Allen is convincing as his long-suffering mother. These and the other fine actors help create a naturalistic, tactile sense of place and culture, much as Joyce's story does. This sense of time and place is aided in no small part by the extensive music and song in the show. The entire cast sings, some perhaps with more effect than others. Anthony and Daniel are in fine voice, as are J. Douglas Blevins as Bartell D'Arcy (an opera singer) and John C. Brown as the sole character original to the play but not the story, the angelic singer Michael whose song distracts Gretta so. Rich Simone's detailed, realistic set, a symmetrical array of green curtains and wood-paneled walls, offers a refined, balanced setting to the holiday atmosphere.
Still, several problems with James Joyce's "The Dead" bear discussion, and more than one of these lie with its title -- specifically, the inclusion of the writer's name. This script is certainly based on Joyce's short story, but it does a poor job of rendering its essence to the stage. The short story focuses on Gabriel and his experience through the Christmas party and on into unspecific days after the party. It's similar to Ulysses in tracking the details of emotions and thoughts as ordinary-yet-poignant life swirls around the central character. The effect is dreamlike, a reality that's magnified and bent by the prism of Gabriel's perspective (and those of others). But this "Dead" seems rather flat, less an emotional and sensory journey than a pretext for the various songs. The songs themselves are many but conceptually vague. Some come out of the story as characters step up to sing to entertain the other guests. But others are more "musical numbers," as suddenly Adler's natural staging is dropped for Barbara Flaten's energetic, show-bizzy choreography. The production that the authors term a "musical play" seems to oscillate between these two poles to no unifying point or effect.
Adler is adept with realistic staging, especially in the first, extended party sequence. But this story is not at heart about social realism; it's about the complex emotions and allegorical echoes underneath that social surface. This undercurrent requires some boldness and directorial invention, especially since Nelson and Davey have opted to stick to so straight an adaptation. When Adler does go in a more theatrical direction, he has a nice touch: As Gabriel is about to give a dinner-table speech, he steps away to talk to the audience while the dinner company leans forward to listen as if he were still at the table. This kind of theatricality seems necessary to get to the flavor and texture of Joyce's tale; I wish Adler had taken these impulses further.
Another problem is the placement of the student musicians, who not only remain on-stage throughout the performance but do so upstage center, while the eminently watchable cast is sidelined or facing upstage. Though they dominate the stage, the musicians have not been directed as characters in the play; their slack-faced lack of involvement only acts as a drag on the entire proceedings.
These weaknesses are decidedly disappointing but should be considered a measure of GableStage's potential and the rising expectations it engenders. As this company's stature grows in the community, so too are higher standards placed upon it than on other companies that dare not risk programming so daunting and so rich.
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